Monday, January 7, 2008

The Story You've Told A Hundred Times

  The strangest thing I've ever said into the phone is this: "I think I'm watching a rat die." This kills a conversation, by the way. One minute your friend drones on and on about the mother who won't stop judging her and the first date sex she should never have had with Mr. Fantastic who hasn't called since. Next, she tersely excuses herself to go floss her teeth.
At the time, I lived in two basement-level rooms, standard issue graduate housing. A single barred window, high on one wall, offered a view of a tiny patch of grass framed by a sidewalk and the front stoop.
That day a yellowish, long bodied rodent crawled across the grass, panting with its jaws wide. It moved slowly, lifting one paw up to reach, pulling itself just an inch or so forward, then reaching with the other paw. You don't see rats in the middle of the afternoon, never in bright sunlight. I stared at it until it collapsed against the bars on my window.
My panorama of argyle socks and heeled sandals had been marred, in my opinion, by this corpse. I called the university's maintenance department to complain. View obstructed by deceased vermin. Please advise. About 20 minutes later, Frank, the building maintenance guy, arrived in a truck. He was a handsome older guy with slicked back salt and pepper hair and a toothy smile. He tended to grimace before each remark.  I led him to the body and described what I'd seen.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Heart attack." (Insert broad Boston accent here.)
Before I could stop myself, I asked, How do you know?" What was I implying, that I suspected foul play? That we should wait for the autopsy? He flashed two fingers at me.
"Two types of rat," he said. "Your black rat, also known as your roof rat. Very good climbers. And then there's your common rat, also known as the Norwegian rat." He nudged the body with his boot. "Which are notorious for their bad hearts."
I pursed my lips hard in a struggle to suppress a smile. "Too much junk food?"
He shook his head. "They eat mostly grains. Pasta and the like. They just die young." He made no move to pick up the rat or cover it, or to return to his truck to get anything with which he might remove it. Stuck for small talk, I asked my second stupid question. "So, they're from Norway?"
"Actually a misnomer," he said. I waited. "Denmark. They come over on the ships." We both nodded sagely about the ships. I wanted to excuse myself, but he asked me which direction it had come from and strode off around the corner of the building. I followed him down into the alley and found him squatting near a crack in the foundation. "Probably came from in here," he said. He leaned down and peered into it. "Oh, yeah," he said. "That goes all the way back. He was living in there."
"Wait. My bedroom is on the other side of this wall." Now it was his turn to suppress a smile. "Are you telling me my roommate died today?"
That made him laugh.

THE EXERCISE: Write out the story you've told a hundred times. Tell it to an anonymous reader, which is much different from telling it aloud. I took this exercise from the book Writing Without the Muse, by Beth Joselow, although she calls it The Story You've Told a Million Times. I've used it in memoir classes, and people like it, even if they struggle with it a bit. The trick is to follow the story all the way to the end, no matter how muddled the exposition at the beginning. Then leave it alone for a week or so. Come back to it and strengthen through editing. On the surface, it's an exercise about the difference between telling and writing. And getting through opening exposition, which always, always sucks.
Try it several times and it will become something else. Because it's a simple story that you know well, because the material already has compelling raw material (funny lines, absurd situations, sudden reversals) you can try to hold three or four elements in mind while you edit each sentence. You can ask each line to do more than one thing. Can you make this bit funnier by changing a word? If you stretch this exchange out for a beat, does it add a nuance of emotion--cut some sentiment into the rage--or does it just wreck the pace? Now you're working like a writer.

1 comment:

Julie said...

First of all, very funny story. B of all, I tried it but I'm not sure I did it right on my blog with my post "4:44."

I like this. It's like long distance teaching.